Civic organizations starving for young blood

Crystal Lake Jaycees President Yvonne Piarowski poses for a photo inside Dole Mansion in Crystal Lake. Piarowski has seen a decline in membership in service organizations in the area.
Crystal Lake Jaycees President Yvonne Piarowski poses for a photo inside Dole Mansion in Crystal Lake. Piarowski has seen a decline in membership in service organizations in the area.

Whether its fading community interest or aging traditions, leaders of local service groups from Woodstock to Crystal Lake are concerned their local chapters are slowly dying.

Leaders of the McHenry Lions Club, Woodstock Jaycees and League of Women Voters of McHenry County all recalled more prosperous times, when residents seemed more willing to help the community through volunteerism.

Membership at organizations is tapering off, even forcing some local chapters to think about shutting down, leaders said.

“It’s a different family structure nowadays – both parents working, dual-income houses,” said David Decker, president of the McHenry Lions Club. “Everybody is too busy keeping a roof over their heads to do anything else.”

Decker oversees about 30 Lions Club members, a decrease of 10 from previous years. The group’s median age is 65, Decker estimated, and all of the existing members have served a leadership role at least twice.

The McHenry chapter, part of an international club with more than 1.35 million members, has been looking for younger recruits to fill leadership positions and bring new ideas to a club that does a variety of community projects.

The club has started to market itself through Facebook and other social media, but hasn’t had much success yet in attracting younger members, Decker said.

Unlike the Lions Club, local Jaycee chapters aim to transform young adults, ages 18 to 40, into community leaders through volunteerism and professional development. But like Decker’s group, the Jaycees are having trouble finding new members.

In Crystal Lake, the Jaycee chapter had to cut back its programming this year after it dropped from 51 to 41 members. The Huntley Jaycees are at their lowest membership level since 2007, finishing this year with 23 members.

The Woodstock Jaycees are teetering on probation after going through most of the year with 20 members – the minimum requirement. The national organization revokes a local charter if a group can’t reach 20 members by the end of a three-month probation period.

The Woodstock chapter has been on probation before.

President Adam Garrison said he would like to see the Jaycees enter a growth period. “You don’t want to keep worrying about probation,” he said. “Am I concerned? Yes, I am concerned.”

Garrison is planning to recruit members through event socials at various Woodstock restaurants.

He said he already knows that four members will not renew membership by the end of the year, dropping the chapter below the 20-member threshold.

Garrison blamed the lack of interest on changing cultural attitudes toward the local groups and the slow economy. He said more people are conscientious of how they spend money, even its $60 for an annual Jaycee membership.

The League of Women Voters of McHenry County has seen membership drop off in the past two years, partly because members can’t afford the annual dues with the sluggish economy, said co-President Paula Ekstrom.

The group, open to both men and women, promotes local civic issues, such as organizing campaign debates and conducting research studies on state and local public policy.

The league, for example, produced leaflets about the county executive referendum in the Nov. 6 election.

Most of the members are retirees, and Ekstrom has been working with the state organization to make membership more flexible for younger residents, who may not have as much free time.

“It’s important to get a different viewpoint than those of us who are retired,” Ekstrom said. “Younger people who are in the workforce, see things and see how it affects their family.”

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